The new Virgin Hotel New Orleans opened its doors on Wednesday, two weeks earlier than previously advertised and undeterred by a recent wave of event cancellations that came on the heels of another surge of COVID-19 infections.

Cody Bertone, the hotel’s general manager, said the latest addition to British billionaire Richard Branson’s boutique chain will forge ahead with its own autumn program of events, as he looks to shape a local identity for the hotel to appeal to New Orleanians as well as visitors to the city. 

Warm and inviting nook with art and books

“With Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest being canceled, obviously we’ve seen some decline in bookings,” said Bertone. “But a lot of this stuff is new, while the planning [for the hotel’s opening] has been years in the making. So, we still feel optimistic that people will come and enjoy what we have to offer.”

Bertone signed up as Virgin’s manager in June after a five-year stint running The Pontchartrain Hotel. He helped re-open the St. Charles Avenue landmark two years ago after a renovation by Chicago-based Ben Weprin, another boutique hotel impresario.

Bertone has hired Nicki Gilbert as the hotel’s director of entertainment and they’re preparing to unveil a September program of events for the hotel’s public spaces.

Before the pandemic, Gilbert was director of entertainment sales at The Ace Hotel, where they had an eclectic program at that hotel’s Three Keys event venue. As well as music from local talent like Tank and the Bangas, that two-level space also featured “salons” on various subjects, like French culture, and provided a place for local artists to show work.

The Virgin Hotel, located on the riverside corner of Baronne and Lafayette streets, features a rooftop pool and lounge topping off its 13 floors, a place that Bertone said he hopes to see Saints fans — among others — enjoying the bar and music before and after games. At the Pontchartrain, Bertone had developed the Hot Tin Rooftop Bar into one of the most popular rooftop spots in the city.

The New Virgin Hotel will have 238 rooms — or “chambers” in the Branson chain’s parlance — which will range in size from 294 square feet to “Richard’s Penthouse Flat,” which boasts 1,097 square feet.

The Virgin Hotels group is in its 10th year, having started with a conversion of the old Dearborn Bank building in downtown Chicago. New Orleans is the sixth hotel to open, and follows a launch earlier this year in Las Vegas.

Branson’s group is riding the boutique hotel trend that has continued apace in New Orleans with the addition of the Hotel Fontenot, with its ornate Peacock Lounge bar, earlier this year, as well as the renovated Hotel St. Vincent and The Frenchmen Hotel in Marigny.

Before the latest wave of the pandemic, hotel occupancy in the city was on the up, with average rates climbing to 60% after the spring rollout of vaccinations. Though October had been shaping up to be a bumper month, hoteliers expect occupancy rates will slip in the coming weeks until the latest surge in the virus subsides.

Though many upcoming events in the city have been canceled, including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and French Quarter Fest, the Saints will be proceeding with their first pre-season game this coming Monday night. The game is expected to draw a capacity crowd for the visit from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Another focal point for the hotel is the Commons Club restaurant, where executive chef Alex Harrell is offering his take on familiar local fare, such as grilled Gulf oysters and corn flan, as well as a (presumably) shareable 24-ounce ribeye steak and a whole deep-fried chicken.

Harrell is known for the Angeline in the French Quarter and more recently as executive chef at the Elysian Bar at the Hotel Peter & Paul in Faubourg Marigny.

Superdome Renovations view of field from box suite

At the Virgin Hotel’s bars, a funky cocktail menu will also feature mixes with names like Dragon Smoke and Saturn’s Son.

As at other Virgin Hotels, Branson’s retro quirkiness can be detected in the Austin Powers-esque The Shag Room, which the hotel’s marketing literature describes as “discrete and intimate” and designed for social events or private affairs.

What does it look like? “Equestrian découpage wallcovering, a smoky mirrored ceiling, and artfully curated figure drawings [setting] a sumptuous scene with a flirtatious tone.”

The New Orleans-based Logan Killen Interiors was the designer and the $80 million project was jointly developed by Maryland-based Buccini/Pollin Group, which also will own the hotel with Virgin Hotels group. Local builder Broadmoor did the construction.

This article originally appeared on on August 19, 2021, and was written by Anthony Mcauley.